With eight chefs left in the competition, Wednesday night offered up a classic Top Chef challenge: Restaurant Wars! And, this year, there was a twist.
Split into two teams of five, the chefs had one day to open “pop up” style restaurants, and their diners would pick the winning eatery – not the judges!
The first team was helmed by Dale Talde, who won immunity in a Quickfire challenge that involved butchering fish at Le Bernardin, then making an entrée with the discarded parts (like the heads and fins). Talde enlisted Richard Blais, Tre Wilcox, Fabio Viviani and Carla Hall to join him, and they began to conceptualize their restaurant.
They decided to riff off the idea of the bodega, locally owned convenience stores/fast food restaurants that are ubiquitous in New York City. With a playful and witty approach, the chefs dubbed their restaurant Bodega and designed menu that began with a bag of potato chips and progressed into more elevated offerings served in whimsical ways.
The other team, headed by Marcel Vigneron, had trouble from the get-go. A polarizing and jittery figure, Marcel never inspired confidence as a leader. His team – Mike Isabella, Angelo Sosa, Antonia Lofaso and Tiffany Derry – clashed over the name and concept of their restaurant. After much back and forth, especially between Marcel and Mike, the group decided on a vague Mediterranean theme, and named their restaurant Etch.
Installing themselves at the Foundry, in Long Island City, the chefs soon learned that their kitchen and workspace would be outside, as would the dining area.
But that was the least of both teams’ concerns.
Team Bodega contended with Dale’s temper, which flared up when his waiters got a little too close for comfort and delivered incomprehensible orders. But Fabio fanned the flames and set everything right.
Actually, Fabio set things more than right: He floated around the dining room, chatting up diners and offered gracious service (and plenty of cheek kisses for the female diners) in his role as the front-of-the-house manager. Putting his Italian charm to good use, the judges and diners seemed as impressed with his service as they did the food – which got uniformly excellent reviews.
For Team Etch, problems continued between Marcel and his teammates. He and Mike sniped at each other while guests sent back their food, especially a lamb dish, claiming it was undercooked. Tiffany couldn’t get her egg and salad course to come together before she had to venture out and greet customers – and Angelo seemed shaken by all the tension.
Worse, Tiffany’s demeanor as front of house manager didn’t create the appearance of confidence or coherence in the kitchen. She awkwardly laughed and seemed unsure of herself and her role.
And the diners noticed. In the end, only 17 out of 76 diners favorably reviewed Etch, leaving that restaurant and its staff up for elimination. And at Judges’ Table, things got heated immediately, with Marcel and Mike reprising their fight in front of everyone. Accusations flew that Marcel failed as a leader.
Not that the food didn’t escape criticism. Anthony Bourdain gave an especially withering take on a conceptual peach dessert that Marcel served, calling it “a perfect storm of f––ing awfulness” and, later, “a thumb in the eye at the end of the meal.”
Angelo seemed to agree. “I’m embarrassed to be here,” he said. “It was a s––-show.”
In the end, Marcel was sent packing for his failed leadership and for his mushy monkfish and much-maligned dessert.
Meanwhile, Team Bodega was rewarded for their ingenuity and clever, elegant concept. While the judges found brilliance in all the dishes, Richard was singled out and awarded the win – and a cash prize of $10,000.